by Linton Weeks
February 12, 2010
A roll of U.S. Constitution toilet paper sells for $7.95 online. Certain TV shows arrange marriages. Other shows brush aside the horrors of serial killers or treat torture as a curiosity.
It makes you wonder — have we become Trivialization Nation? Perhaps we've downsized the meaning of everything: Love. Death. Sex. Religion. Education. Civil rights.
How sacred is life when in a recent episode of the widely watched and revered Oprah, a murderer on death row appears via satellite to speak with the children of his victims? How lifted up is love when a houseful of men and women vie on MTV's A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila for the favors of the self-promoting Web celeb?
The Department of Homeland Security, created in 2002, will be the subject of a conference this month called "The 7-Year Itch — Renewing the Commitment." That's right. Bright, creative people plan to discuss the supersober topic of national security in this era of incredible danger — and they name the confab for a 1955 Marilyn Monroe movie about marital ennui.
Witty, yes. Weighty, not so much.
There was a time not too long ago when the Dead Kennedys, same-sex kissing, Judy Blume books, RuPaul and politicians' affairs still had shock value. People had to actually practice practice practice the guitar before becoming a rock band musician. Relationships were not reduced to friending and unfriending.
Not too long ago we wondered if this gray-flannel country had a sense of humor. As recently as 1990, Madonna was exhorting America to "lighten up!" Now, 20 years later — thanks in part to Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, Howard Stern, Sacha Baron Cohen, Wanda Sykes and a parade of snarkers who routinely reduce important matters to punch lines — a more appropriate question might be: Does this country have a sense of what is important?
It's As Old As The Hills
"Our culture, or at least our nation, is becoming more trivial, less concerned with what matters, by the hour," says Gary Hardcastle, a philosophy professor at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania and co-editor of Bullshit and Philosophy.
To be fair, Hardcastle continues, civilization trivialization is as old as the hills. He refers to Hesiod — a poet who railed against the devaluation of values in society in 750 B.C.
Writer Norman Corwin, who will turn 100 in May, has been waging a battle against banality for more than half a century. In 1983, he published a social critique titled Trivializing America: The Triumph of Mediocrity.
Discounting significant aspects of our society "is a national tendency," Corwin now says from his home in Los Angeles. "It's easier to think loosely about unimportant matters. People tend to think about football, the news, the weather and their budgets before they think of the important things."
Corwin and other cultural critics see the contemporary United States on a particularly steep downward slope.
Talk show maestro Charlie Rose recently asked Drew Faust, president of Harvard, if she is worried about the dumbing down of the culture. "I worry about attention span," Faust said, "because people will not listen to more than a couple of sentences or read more than a couple of sentences. Does everything have to be a sound bite? Is everything to be digested into something brief? And aren't there complicated ideas that we ought to have the patience to give our attention to?"
Faust continued, "I worry about dumbing down in terms of speed and in terms of reflection. Do we sit back and think about things hard or do we always have to go on to the next sound bite, the next stimulus?"
The floodwaters of trivialization seep throughout our culture, from Hollywood to the White House. Frank Schaeffer, writing in The Huffington Post, laments that Barack Obama has lowered lofty presidential standards. The lowest point occurred in August, according to Schaeffer, when Obama invited Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. to the White House to share a beer with the Cambridge, Mass., cop who arrested Gates at his home.
"Is a Joe the Plumber consult next?" Schaeffer writes. "How small time and silly does the President want to look?"
The widespread trivialization of meaningful things is indisputable. Sound bites and silliness reign supreme. Reducing life-and-death questions to bumper stickers, such as "People Like You Make Me Pro-Choice," or vast education initiatives to a simple buzz phrase, such as No Child Left Behind, enables us to get a toehold on steep issues. But it can also cheapen the complexities.
Perhaps the tendency to trivialize is born of bandwagonism or laziness. Idiomatically speaking: It's easier to tear down than to build up. Or maybe we devalue valuable things because, as Herbert Marcuse observed, of society's tilt toward repressive desublimation. In Marcuse's mind, our capitalist culture renders a strong, often threatening urge into something weak and nonthreatening. For instance, marketers learn to satisfy our desire to be closer to nature by selling us Patagonia fleece jackets that we wear in our all-terrain Land Rovers driving to the mall.
This desublimation is repressive, Marcuse asserted, because it muffles social criticism and supports addictive consumerism. Consequently, contemporary society is spiritually and intellectually stagnant.
Plus, trivializing large ideals is easier than living up to them. And it's less scary.
"In an ideal democracy," says Richard Hanley, a philosophy professor at the University of Delaware, "the populace is interested, rational, and informed; and although reasonable people can disagree, so that not everyone gets what they want, a free marketplace of ideas would see the cream tend to rise to the top."
He adds, "In a real democracy like the United States, the populace is for the most part interested, somewhat less rational, and scandalously uninformed. ... Most people, on many important issues, do not know what to think about, and don't know how to think about it anyway."
So trivialization is an inevitable outgrowth of this confusion.
In fact, says Hardcastle, it's normal. "I'm inclined to think of a culture, even one as unwieldy as ours, as a body, and like all bodies it needs to be kept in balance. One part of it craves the mundane, the trivial, the stupid. Another pulls in the opposite direction, toward the profound, the subtle, the glorious. Either extreme is stultifying, but the balance between them is healthy in the sense that it can be sustained."
And so, he says, "we should we redouble our efforts to call out the trivialization, the slide toward banality."
By citing what's trite, Hardcastle observes, "we're doing our part to keep civilization on track. We're not going to eradicate the trivial, nor should we think things are any worse than they've ever been. But for all that our role is crucial."
Hardcastle reaches back through the history of cultural criticism and concludes: "We are modern-day Hesiods."